[Editor's Note: Fuck Guilty Pleasures celebrates the over-produced, commercial, artless, lowbrow music that we believe is genuinely worthwhile. Like, among the best music ever.]
I had a ghetto friend once, who was like Keyshia Cole in some ways. My friend had gelled baby hair, gold rings, crochet braids, and lived around the rules instead of within them. My conservative mother was not a fan, but I found it inspiring, just like I find Keyshia Cole inspiring. Sometimes, however, it feels like I'm the only one.
Some backstory: Now on her fifth album, Cole is no longer the adorable young girl stumbling in Mary J. Blige's shoes. Now she seems trapped in the “woman scorned R&B” subgenre, and her flaws as a singer often come through. Personally, she's something of a mess. (More on that later.)
Critics have never been all that impressed with her. Reviewing her latest album, Woman To Woman, New York Times writer Ben Ratliff wrote: Cole's “delivery across the record makes all situations sound the same: peace, war, passive aggression.”
At least the streets always had her back, right? Well, it hardly seems that way anymore, if you're talking about the Twitter streets anyway. Folks seemed to turn on her when she went on a Super Bowl themed tirade, accusing Michelle Williams of “fuckN the groove up” (sic) during Destiny's Child's reunion. She added: “y'all girl is WACK and always will be!”
The sparks began to fly:
Cue the Keyshia Cole fish plate meme.
But while everyone else seemed to be piling on, I took Cole's side.
After all, there is clearly a much larger issue looming underneath the surface. Cole's assertiveness is survival-based, as a daughter of a drug addicted mother and a foster child. She lived in a world where nothing was certain, including love, respect, and security.
Sure, Cole's unstable adolescence is long gone, but it appears that the scars have left a shadow. Maybe, just maybe, Cole's childish “she criticized me first” response was a throwback to her turbulent upbringing where she had to attack or be attacked. It's a defensive, scorched earth approach, and Williams was the wrong person to blame. But I'm willing to let her off the hook because of her tough background.
And going back to the music: While artists like Beyonce conceal their personal lives with CIA-level secrecy, the sordid details of Cole's past formed the raw ingredients of her inspiration. She painfully yodeled her way into my heart with the 2005 breakout hit “Love.” Did I care that she sounded like a cat getting stepped on? No. I cared that she had enough strength to leave a cheating man in the dust and forge a career in the shadow of heartbreak.
Cole has an ability to transform despair into motivation. No other artist can make me throw up my hands in gleeful, cathartic anger (“Let Go”), curl up next to my pillow with girlish romantic fantasies (“Brand New”), or feel like I'm reading from my old diaries (“Next Move”). She excels at both transparency and aggression.
Ultimately, Cole is most hated for not having filters. (Does she even have a PR team?) But her real fans, not the Twitter peanut gallery, love her for who she is: a mother, a wife, and a warrior with an armor of self-love.
Cole proves that a singer is defined by more than technique. It's not about that. And it never has been.